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Memphis, Tennessee

Birthplace of the Blues

Beale Street in Memphis Tennessee © Mike Leco /
Beale Street is about three blocks of the old district and packed with blues clubs, restaurants and small bars.

Memphis is at the gateway to the Mississippi delta

Memphis is situated on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River at the western border of Tennessee. Like its ancient namesake in Egypt, this city lies above the apex of a mighty river delta. It forms a gateway between two radically different regions of the USA. To the south, lie the poverty stricken farms of the delta, the swampy bayous of Louisiana and that great European flavored port city of New Orleans. To the north and west are the rich farms of the Midwestern plains and the northern industrial cities like Chicago and Detroit.

Perhaps this strategic location has helped form the unique cultural heritage of Memphis. A genteel atmosphere of southern aristocracy has blended with the intensely spiritual soul of its Afro-American community. This is the birthplace of the Blues and the birthplace of Rock and Roll. It was also the home of the king of rock and roll, Elvis Presley.

See the march of the Peabody ducks!

Downtown Memphis, stretches along the bluff overlooking the Mississippi. Main Street has been converted to a pedestrian mall with antique trolleys and horse drawn carriages providing convenient transportation to the entire downtown area.

The Peabody Hotel, located near the midpoint of the downtown district has a unique tradition. Every day at eleven AM and at five PM, the Peabody ducks parade to and from the lobby fountain with the accompaniment of an orchestral march. A giant steel pyramid, housing a sports and entertainment complex is at the north end of downtown. Just south of the pyramid a walkway leads to Mud Island, containing a river museum complete with a working model of the lower Mississippi and the Memphis Belle, a world war II, B-17 bomber made famous in the movie of the same name.

The Blues were born on Beale Street

After the civil war, many Afro-Americans were attracted to the thriving river economy of Memphis. Beale Street, near the southern end of the downtown district, became the center of a vibrant community of black business owners and professionals. At night, it was infamous for its raucous entertainment in its many saloons and sporting houses. W. C. Handy penned the music for Saint Louis Blues, the first commercially successful Blues songs, in one of the Beale's Street bars in 1912.

Today, Beale Street is still wonderfully exciting. About three blocks of the old district are packed with blues clubs, restaurants and small bars. On any given night and especially on Saturday nights, you can hear dozens of top quality blues performers. You can also hear rock and roll, jazz or a bit of country, but mostly you will hear authentic delta blues.

B. B. King's, Rum Boogie's, Elvis Presley's and the Hard Rock Café are all top quality clubs, but even the lowliest dives sometimes feature great entertainment. I heard the mournful cry of a great delta blues singer coming from a blind guitarist playing for tips beneath the statue of W. C. Handy at the end of the street. Many of the clubs also offer some great delta cooking like Bar-B-Q Memphis ribs and Cajun gumbo.

Sun Studios and Graceland are worth seeing

Historic Sun Studios is situated in a rather run-down neighborhood just a few miles east of downtown. It is small and not very impressive looking, but the tour is well worth the modest eight-dollar fee. You will stand in the very room where Muddy Waters, Ike Turner, and Howlin Wolf recorded their earliest blues recordings, where a young electrical worker named Elvis Aaron Presley cut his first demonstration tape and recorded his first hit, "That's all right". You will even hear the famous recording of Elvis, jamming with Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash.

Graceland home of Elvis Presley in Memphis Tennessee © Mike Leco /
Graceland, Elvis' famous estate is located on Elvis Presley Blvd.

Graceland, Elvis' famous estate is located on Elvis Presley Blvd. about 15 minutes south of downtown Memphis. Unfortunately, the neighborhood is no longer as exclusive as it was when Elvis lived. Elvis Presley Blvd. is lined with strip malls, small shops and industrial sites nearly to the doorstep of Graceland. The entry fee costs about $22. It includes an audio-guided tour (in several languages) of the Elvis mansion with its vast collection of Elvis' costumes and awards. It also includes a tour of two jet airplanes built for Elvis and many of his cars and motorcycles. You can buy a lot of Elvis souvenirs in this neighborhood.

The National Civil Rights Museum is located in Memphis

The National Civil Rights Museum is located in an impoverished neighborhood just a few blocks south of downtown. The old Lorraine Motel, where Doctor Martin Luther King was assassinated, has been restored and dedicated to the history of the civil rights movement. It may not have as much relevance to foreign visitors, but to us Americans, it is a moving reminder of our recent history.

The Memphis Music Hall of fame is located downtown across from the Peabody Hotel. It has many artifacts and memorabilia from famous blues and rock and roll performers. The Memphis Queen Riverboats depart from a pier on the riverfront just south of Mud Island. They offer a variety of sightseeing and pleasure cruises on the Mississippi. The Pink Palace Museum and Planetarium with its IMAX theater and its many natural and cultural exhibits is located in the eastern suburbs near route 240.

The best shopping is in the suburbs

There are not many shopping options in downtown Memphis. Beale street has a wide selection of Elvis souvenirs and Blues memorabilia. It also has the 125 year-old A. Schwab Department Store with some interesting merchandise that appears to be nearly as old as the store.

The really big shopping centers are all located in the suburbs just off the beltway around the city formed by I-40 and I-240. There are a few smaller malls on Elvis Presley Blvd. near Graceland. For serious bargain hunters, The Belz Factory Outlet Mall is located in Lakeland about 40 minutes east of downtown Memphis.

Spring and Fall are good times to visit Memphis

May is a great time to visit. The Beale Street Music Festival is held the first full weekend of May. It is one of the best Blues festivals found anywhere. The Southern Cooking festival and the World Championship Barbeque contest are held later in May.

Sun Studios in Memphis Tennessee © Mike Leco /
At Sun Studios, you can stand in the very room where Elvis Presley cut his first demonstration tape.

The weather is usually very pleasant in the spring and fall. Temperatures can become quite hot and unpleasant during mid-summer. Winters are usually mild and snowfall is rare.

Attractions outside the city

The biggest attraction outside the city of Memphis lies about 30 miles south in Tunica, Mississippi. This small town has been converted to a gambling center with casinos, hotels and entertainment.

Tupelo, Mississippi, about 100 miles south east of Memphis, is the birthplace of Elvis Presley. You can visit his humble childhood home. Henning, Tennessee, about 50 miles north of Memphis, is the birthplace and early home of Alex Haley, author of "Roots". He is buried nearby along with many of his relatives including "Chicken George".

Mississippi Riverboats are a different way to tour the Southlands of the USA. The Memphis Queen Riverboats depart from the Mississippi river bank near Mud Island. They offer sightseeing tours on the river, evening dinner cruises and some special party cruises. The Delta Queen Riverboats cruise the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers from New Orleans all the way up to Cincinnati, Ohio and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania about 1,500 miles upstream. They stop at Memphis on their journeys and it is possible to cruise from one day to a week or more on the greatest rivers in the USA.

Nashville, Tennessee, the country music capital of the world is 200 miles to the east of Memphis. Fifty miles south of Nashville, in the tiny town of Lynchburg, Tennessee, lies the Jack Daniels distillery, producer of the worlds finest Tennessee Sour Mash Whiskey.

Written by: Mike Leco
Top Photo Credit: © Mike Leco /
Photo Description: Trolley in downtown Memphis.